Monday, January 11, 2010

Authors, Impostors and Other Pretenders

“It is because we are all impostors that we endure each other.” 
~ Emile M. Cioran

Last Saturday afternoon at Times Center in Manhattan, crime fiction authors Jim Grant (who writes as Lee Child) and Carol O'Connell talked about their work with New York Times book critic Janet Maslin. Grant's Jack Reacher is a drifter who follows his own, lethal moral code. O'Connell's Mallory is a drop-dead gorgeous New York City homicide detective and certified sociopath. At one point Maslin asked the two authors to what extent the characters who made them famous are autobiographical.

Grant is a good-looking, articulate man who seems completely at ease in his own skin. He grew up fighting his way to school on the rough streets of Birmingham, England, and he freely admitted that he and his lone killer character are psychic twins, with Reacher acting out Child's own revenge fantasies.  

Carol O'Connell is a diminutive, attractive but awkward contrarian who seems more like a rebellious high school girl than the baby boomer she is. She insisted Mallory was nothing like her, but to this observer it seemed more likely that Mallory was her avenging angel, slapping down bullies and delivering fierce payback.

“We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others, that in the end we become disguised to ourselves.”
~ François de la Rochefoucauld

Actors and novelists inhabit other people for a living, but almost all of us are imposters in particular situations. My first working decade was spent in small, informal music business companies; the posturing there was a lot like high school — we all wanted to seem cool. Later, when I took an editing job at a big ad agency, I encountered my first corporate pod people. The idea that millions of normal people got up every morning, put on their corporate work clothes, corporate work personae and corporate work vocabularies and basically pretended to be someone else all day was new to me. After reading a few books about history of corporations, I learned that the corporate code of conduct was based on the military and first took hold in a major way after World War I, as rural populations and waves of immigrants moved to major cities in search of work. So corporate pod-world was created as a neutral ground where people from different backgrounds could interact and perform tasks under clear hierarchical control. Unfortunately, that system, which worked well enough ninety years ago, is solving the wrong problems in 2010.
“Speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts.”
~ Charles M. de Talleyrand

Psychologists are familiar with a condition known as the Impostor Syndrome. According to the CalTech Web site, symptoms include feeling like a fraud, attributing your accomplishments to sheer luck, diminishing the value of your successes and living in dread of being found out. Perhaps ironically (or perhaps predictably) the people most likely to suffer from the Impostor Syndrome are high achievers. But here's a fascinating twist: according to this New York Times article, a study by Wake Forest University found that some of those who speak of themselves disparagingly don't actually mean it — they are "phony phonies."

Want to know if you're suffering from the Impostor Syndrome? Take this handy quiz on the Impostor Syndrome Web site.

Thinking about impostors and Impostor Syndrome makes me want to create my own tough-talking stand-in to level all lumpy playing fields and right all perceived wrongs. Couldn't we all use one?

“Write books only if you are going to say in them the things you would never dare confide to anyone.” 
~ Emile M. Cioran

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